As Arguments Begin, Civil Rights Leaders Urge Supreme Court to Uphold One of the Nation’s Oldest Anti-Discrimination Statutes

“All eyes should be on this critical case,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “An adverse decision by the Supreme Court could imperil the integrity of section 1981 as a tool for protecting the full economic and legal rights of Black people.” (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments that pit Comcast (CMCSA), America’s biggest cable provider, against National Association of African American-Owned Media and Entertainment Studios Networks, Inc., and more importantly one of the Nation’s oldest anti-discrimination statutes, Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. 

Section 1981 prohibits intentional race discrimination in contracting, and protects African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities from discrimination in the workplace and marketplace. The law applies to all private and public actors and prohibits retaliation. It has been one of the cornerstones of the oldest and most storied pieces of civil rights laws for over 150 years.

Comcast is asking the Supreme Court to rule that intentional race discrimination claims brought under Section 1981 should be dismissed if plaintiffs are unable to show that race was the reason behind a discriminatory action, as opposed to reason.

Civil rights leaders urge the Supreme Court to affirm the lower court’s ruling that intentional race discrimination claims under Section 1981 are viable if the plaintiff is able to show that race played role in the challenged discriminatory decisions. A ruling by the Supreme Court requiring plaintiffs to prove that race was the but for reason of a discriminatory decision would make it nearly impossible for litigants to prevail in their cases and would result in meritorious cases being dismissed at the earliest stages of litigation.

Leaders representing the Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights Under law, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), NAACPand The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, submitted “friend of the court” briefs in the case pending before the Supreme Court, Comcast v. National Association of African American-Owned Media and Entertainment Studios Networks, Inc.

“This is the most important racial justice case that will be heard by the Supreme Court this term,” said Kristen Clarke, president & executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “An adverse ruling by the Court stands to impose a burdensome pleading standard in Section 1981 cases that would shut the courthouse door on victims of discrimination all across the country. Section 1981 is one of the oldest civil rights statutes that provides core protection from groups otherwise beyond the reach of civil rights statutes including independent contractors and gig economy workers. The Court should reject this challenge to help ensure that victims of discrimination get their day in court and have the opportunity to be heard.” 

“Section 1981 is one of our nation’s oldest civil rights laws, specifically intended to end racial discrimination in contracting,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Every person, no matter who they are or what their race, should have fair and equitable access to opportunity and economic mobility. The Supreme Court must not weaken the vital protections of this historic civil rights statute.”

“All eyes should be on this critical case,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “An adverse decision by the Supreme Court could imperil the integrity of section 1981 as a tool for protecting the full economic and legal rights of Black people.”

“The case that sits before the Supreme Court is one of monumental importance to the protection and continuation of Black businesses and contractors, said Derrick Johnson,” President and CEO, NAACP. “The attempt to turn back the clock on one of the most vital civil rights protections is a grave threat to the very fabric of the nation — we will continue to fight so that section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 is preserved for generations to come.”

Background

The case contends that both Comcast and Charter Communications violated Section 1981 after minority-owned Entertainment Studios attempted have the two cable systems carry its networks and were denied.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and NAACP LDF argue in their briefs that the position taken by Comcast is inconsistent with the plain text of Section 1981 and would frustrate the fundamental purpose of the provision—to place African Americans on equal footing as white citizens in our nation’s economy. Comcast urges the Supreme Court to hold that Section 1981 requires “but-for” causation if there are non-racial justifications, and that the telecom company’s claim should be dismissed without discovery or trial. If successful, Comcast’s arguments would, in many cases, impose an impossible pleading burden on victims of discrimination and prevent them from vindicating meritorious claims. 

The Lawyers’ Committee brief is joined by The Leadership Conference, NAACP and over 20 other organizations and can be read here. The NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund’s brief is joined by 10 other organizations and can be read here

Listen to the audio from our press call for the filing of the briefs here

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. Now in its 56th year, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is continuing its quest to “Move America Toward Justice.” The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and voting rights.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 220 national organizations to promote and protect the rights of all persons in the United States. The Leadership Conference works toward an America as good as its ideals. For more information on The Leadership Conference and its member organizations, visit www.civilrights.org.

Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.

Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest nonpartisan civil rights organization. Its members throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities. You can read more about the NAACP’s work and our six “Game Changer” issue areas by visiting naacp.org 

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